Is Your Private Internet Data Being Harvested From Undersea Cables?

Is Your Private Internet Data Being Harvested From Undersea Cables?

In Technology, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


99% of all the internet traffic and most probably the video you are watching now has traveled over an undersea cable somewhere along the route. It is estimated that the finance sector alone sends some $10 trillion dollars per day of financial transactions over these cables. And as a whole there are 1000’s of petabytes of data flowing through them every day

But if you thought that security was just about preventing them from being cut you would be wrong as cable tapping to gain access to the vast amounts that travels through these cables also goes on and with virtually nothing in the way of oversight because it’s been done in the name of national security.

And it’s not just data, countries like China, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark are setting up large off-shore wind farms to generate electricity on a very large scale, not only go green but also have a reliable source of energy unaffected by oil and gas prices and all the uncertainty that this entails in today’s fractured world and all of these need to be connected via undersea cables.

Together, these unseen cables have huge strategic and economic importance, but how safe are they from both damage and wiretapping from intelligence agencies, rogue states, bad actors, and natural phenomena?

Now, we might think undersea cables are a recent development and therefore sabotage of them is an equally modern thing but the first undersea telegraph cables became operational in 1850 between England and France and the first transatlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland in 1858. That first cable failed due to poor insulation but by 1866 the second cable became the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable to become operational.

Over the following 50 years or so, telegraph cables spread around the world and became the primary method of transmitting information quickly.

The United Kingdom became a world leader in undersea cables because of the need to be connected to the far-flung places of the British empire and the British understood just how important they would be in times of crisis or war.

So, on the day after the outbreak of WW1, the British became the first nation to intentionally cut another nation’s undersea telegraph cables when they cut the five German cables in the English Channel that linked Germany with Spain, France, the Azores, and indirectly with the rest of the world with the British cable laying ship, HMTS Alert.

This forced the Germans to use their powerful radio transmitter at Nauen to communicate outside of Europe which was easier for the British to monitor.

Something else the British intelligence services did was to quickly place “Censors”, basically people who would monitor every message that went through the more than 180 British-controlled telegraph stations around the world.

This was the first systematic telegraphic surveillance system, and allowed them to not only stop German messages from getting through to agents in the field wherever they were but also to eves drop on the 50,000 messages that would pass through the UK telegraph offices per day. By the end of the war, more than 80 million messages had been intercepted.

Now once you have the power to see what people and governments are saying to each other in what would be private telegrams, that is something that you don’t give up and it increased with both the British and then the US monitoring and tapping undersea cables over the following decades.

During the Cold War, the American CIA and NSA were interested in finding out more about the soviet submarine and ICBM technology and their nuclear first-strike capability.

They became aware of a soviet undersea telecommunications cable in the sea of Sea of Okhotsk off the western Pacific coast, which connected the Petropavlovsk, the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s primary nuclear submarine base, on the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s mainland headquarters at Vladivostok.

In a highly classified operation called Operation Ivy Bells in 1971, the US sent a modified submarine deep into Soviet waters which were strictly off-limits to foreign ships to place a highly sophisticated listening and recording device that measured about 2 meters in length and wrapped around the undersea cable, if the cable were raised it was designed to detach itself to avoid discovery.

This could record the slight electromagnetic field around the cable, and as such the telephone signals that were passing through it, in fact the Soviets were so sure of its security that many of the military conversations were sent unencrypted.

Every month, for 10 years US Navy divers slipped past the Soviet listening devices to recover and replace the tapes containing the recorded data and these were sent back to the NSA for analysis.

With this, they could eavesdrop on senior Soviet officers’ conversations to provide invaluable information on the Soviet Pacific Nuclear submarine fleet.

In fact, it was so successful that more advanced versions were built by AT& T which used radioisotope thermoelectric generators similar to those used on spacecraft like the Voyager probes and could store a year’s worth of data and were attached to other Soviet undersea cables.

The Soviets only found out about these listening devices when NSA employee Ronald Pelton, who was fluent in Russian and had gone bankrupt with financial problems, sold the details of the program to the Soviets, and the US only found out about the data leak when the KGB colonel who was Pelton’s initial contact in Washington defected to the west.

Since their invention in the 1970s, fiber optics have revolutionized telecommunications and where once satellites were the  go to method of sending signals around the world, now fibre optic cables move 1000s of petabytes of data far more cheaply and reliably than any satellite network like Skylink ever could.

With this massive increase in data, the tapping of that is now on a scale that far outstrips the ability to analyse it and the wiretapping of the undersea cables spanning the globe has continued in secret by both the US and even more so by GCHQ in the UK.

When the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents, it revealed a British program run by GCHQ called Tempora. Even back in the 2010’s it was sucking up 21 petabytes, that 21 million gigabytes of data per day which it stored for one month, in which time it was analyzed looking for some 40,000 triggers that would be of interest and be followed up on.

This was basically capturing huge haystacks of data to find the needles of interest. However, if the police or intelligence services need to tap a person’s phone they need a warrant, here the data is taken wholesale, the excuse being used is that government is doing this massive data trawling to protect national security and that this new way of doing things isn’t really the same as a single wire tap, hence the law needs to be changed.  GCHQ also had more leeway than the NSA in the gathering  

Of course, the other takeaway from the Snowden leaks is that if our governments were taking these huge amounts of data over a decade ago, what are they doing now. And what amount foreign powers that are equally adept in cyber espionage such as China and Russia, especially as international relations are at an all-time low, all of which give our governments the excuse to do it even more so.

But how do they do they tap into an armoured undersea cable that uses fiber optic to transfer the data at the bottom of the sea.

Well, the easiest way is not to do it in the sea at all but do it on land where the cables come ashore and in agreement with the cable companies here in the UK and to a lesser extent France where they are ideally placed at the far western edge of Europe were most of the cables terminate.

It’s a highly secretive process in which it is thought that the cables are tapped by optical probes that bounce the light through a prism, make a copy of it, and turn it into binary data without disrupting the flow of the original Internet traffic.

Glimmerglass, a global provider of optical cyber solutions have said that they offer their services to the intelligence community and offer the ability to monitor everything from Gmail to Facebook but its not known if they worked as part of the British Tempora or the US equivalents in data gathering.

Tapping cables on the sea bed is much more difficult but it is believed that this involves tapping the regeneration nodes where the optical fibres terminate and the signals are boosted electronically before being sent on to the next stage of the undersea cable.

Devices similar to the 1970s Ivy Bells sensors could, in theory, pick up the stray electromagnetic energy from where the fiber optics are unbundled and individually boosted. This could be recorded and then picked up in a similar way to what the US Navy did.

There is also the possibility, although its very small one, that backdoors could be secretly built into the cable in the manufacturing process that would allow data to be tapped and recorded.

But what about the ultimate kill switch, the cutting of a cable like that was done in WW1.

Well, that might work if there is only one cable connecting to a small country or remote region but there are now more than 400 active cables worldwide covering some 1.3 million Kilometers or about 780,000 miles and many of these are multiple cables running between the same places like the ones across the Atlantic.

The automatic switching and routing built in to the backbone of the internet means that if one were cut the data would be automatically rerouted through the others or an alternative route. You would have to cut them all to have a complete loss transmission.

the UK is due to have a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance ship (MROSS) in 2024 to monitor and protect the cables. It will be fitted with advanced sensors and carry a number of remotely operated and autonomous undersea drones to inspect cables and keep a lookout for attempts to interfere with them.

Of course when it come to power cables between large wind farms and the onshore connection, it would not be possible to reroute the electricity without a back up cable which for economic reasons is not often done.

Damage to all types of cables is far more likely to happen close to where they come ashore where they would be exposed to things like seabed trawling or accidental ship anchors.

There is also the possibility of damage from Submarine landslides and earthquakes but a lot of planning goes into the routing of the cable to try and avoid areas where this is common.

So on the whole the under-sea fibre optic networks which are still expanding are a very resilient and with its built-in redundancy, like the of the rest of the internet it would be very difficult to knock out even part of it. But as for its security that cant be said to be the same if it is intentionally hacked by the people who own and control it, and that is a political not a technological issue.

So I hope you enjoyed the video and if you did then please thumbs up , share and subscribe and thank you to all our patrons for their on going support.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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